Absurdity of Numbers

After my post on content yesterday, I got to thinking about the concept of information explosion that I was writing about. Talk about a lack of critical thinking.

First – information is not the same of knowledge. What I started out writing about was the doubling of knowledge.

Knowledge will make you free
Photo credit: tellatic

What we have ended up with is the doubling of information. Information becomes useful as it helps us to understand the world around us. That is when information changes and becomes knowledge. The information that is being accumulated at an incomprehensible rate today largely remains information and fails to become knowledge – it does not help us understand the world around us, and is just information.

Second, the rate of information acquisition in the world can’t be as great as has been forecast, and is not sustainable. Even at the linear rate I chose as the premise of my arguments, very shortly we begin to double information at an impossible rate. As an example, let me use pieces of music – songs.

If there were five songs in 1965 (I know there were more, but let’s just pretend), and if the number of songs were to multiply at the rate that the information explosion rate would have us believe, we would have in the range of 5.25 million songs today – hardly unbelievable in anyone’s world. However, as the rate of information doubling continues, even at the linear rate used in yesterdays blog, by 2015 we are experiencing two doublings of information per year and five doublings per year by 2020. I know there will be some out there who are saying Yes! Yes! Bring on the Singularity! (that’s when people use telepathy and pigs fly). However, going back to our songs, if the rate of information explosion is applied to music, by the beginning of 2021 (January 2021) we will have 22 trillion songs.

Bars 1–7 of John Philip Sousa' Washington Post...
Photo credit: Wikipedia

There are still some of you who are asking why this might be unbelievable. Well, if we look at March of 2021 (I’m not certain of which day in March), we will have 44 trillion songs produced, as the rate of information doubling is down to 2 point something months. I can see some of you with scrunched up faces and squinted eyes saying Well, that is possible until you think through the logistics. What this means is that with a projected populatioon of 7.5 billion people, we would have to produce 5866 songs per man, woman, and child during the January to March period of 2021. I’m not that great at producing any songs, and to come up with 5866 during that two month period will take some doing.

The next thing that I know will come up is the fact that computers can now write music, and they will get better and better as time goes on. What that really means is that computers will be able to generate patterns of notes and even be able to generate pleasing patterns of notes tailored to individual tastes – however, it remains information until someone chooses to listen to it and incorporate it into their lives. I listen to music all the time, but I’m not sure about wanting to hear 5866 new songs, many of which will have to be computer generated, between January and March 2021.

This leads me back to my first point above – the production of information does not mean the production of knowledge. I think that in many ways, we are already well down this pathway already. Tens of thousands of blog entries are written daily, most of which are never to be read by anyone but the writer. Thousands of journal articles are produced weekly, most of which are never read by anyone other than the reviewers who are involved in the game of producing more journal articles. Thousands of PhDs are awarded monthly, most of which are so specific that they interest only the person who produced the work (and then only for the first two years of study – most of us hate their

English: John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November ...
John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308)

PhD work by the time we are finished). As an example, there is the work referred to by Mark C. Taylor where a colleague “boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations”. Is this knowledge or information? Who, besides the supervisor and the poor examiners who have to judge the thing, are ever going to read it? How does this help me understand the world around me?

This is why we need to re-examine what we are doing in HE. We are supposed to be about knowledge and understanding. The storehouse of wisdom and the place to ask WHY. With the explosion of information, and our complicity in becoming qualifications factories, we risk becoming irrelevant and empty institutions that are integral to the functioning of the brave new world we are entering.


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